The brave new Tysons Corner, and how we'll get there

Friday, April 23, 2010

WHEN PASSENGERS EMERGE from any of four new Metro stations scheduled to open along a three-mile stretch through Tysons Corner in 2013, they are unlikely to feel they have alighted in a pulsing downtown. The site of one planned station is flanked by a suburban baseball field; another sits by a parking lot; a third is across the street from an unlovely old strip mall whose tenants -- a car dealership, a Wendy's -- do not exactly dazzle the eye and set hearts aflutter.

Tysons, with its malls, office parks and endless acres of parking lots, too often resembles the blob that ate Northern Virginia. But with 120,000 workers, it remains one of the East Coast's premier employment centers -- and one of the nation's ripest candidates for a top-to-bottom redevelopment whose goal is, or should be, to retrofit one of the prototypical "edge cities" that sprouted in the last half of the 20th century into something more resembling a real city.

How exactly to achieve that is what planners, politicians and private interests have been wrangling over in Fairfax County for the past few years. Prudently, planners have scaled back the original vision for Tysons, which tried to peer 40 years into the future, a fanciful exercise at best. Now the rough outlines of a deal are starting to come into focus. The amount of development in Tysons, where 46 million square feet of buildings (the equivalent of seven Pentagon buildings) are now spread over 1,700 acres, would nearly double, to 84 million square feet, by 2030. Much of it would be concentrated around the new Metro stations, and it would include thousands of new apartments, turning what is now a ghost town after office hours into a lived-in neighborhood, with evening entertainment, restaurants that stay open after sunset, possibly even grocery stores. When buildings are constructed, they would have sidewalks (currently a novelty at Tysons), less parking (to encourage the use of transit and bicycles) and a mix of shops, eateries and office entrances that is close enough to the road to be inviting. In a place now almost wholly dependent on people driving to work, most of them without passengers, the aim to is to coax about a third of all the workers in Tysons (whose number could nearly double, to 200,000, by mid-century) out of their cars.

If all that sounds ambitious and very long-range, it is. The property market in Northern Virginia, as elsewhere, is all but dead at the moment; there's hardly a crane on the skyline at Tysons, which will need a lot of them to realize the planners' vision of a new downtown. For Tysons to be remade, and to accommodate tens of thousands of new workers and residents, it will also require billions of dollars worth of road and other transit and road improvements, the provenance of which looks fuzzy in a state whose transportation dollars have all but evaporated.

Just as critically, there are still disputes to be worked out between the county and developers over issues of density, approval guidelines, and how the public and private sectors will divide the cost of such crucial amenities as a grid system of roads that would allow local traffic to avoid the already badly clogged major arteries that run through Tysons.

Those are among the challenges confronting the county Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors as five years of reviews, hearings and public debate come to a head. The goal is to adopt a blueprint to redo a half-century of helter-skelter development in Tysons that strikes a balance -- or rather a series of balances -- between providing developers with incentives to rebuild and ensuring they pay a fair share of the infrastructure; between residential and commercial development; and between a place where it remains possible to drive and possible to avoid driving. To state the obvious, compromise will be necessary all around.

The outcome is likely to be one of the most significant land-use decisions in Northern Virginia since 1982, when Fairfax reined in unplanned growth by sharply limiting development on 40,000 acres of the Occoquan Basin, which was to be a site for tract housing. But it's easier (even in Virginia) to limit development than rehabilitate it; the truth about Tysons is that there's little precedent locally, or nationally for that matter, for remaking a sprawling suburban dystopia of Tysons's daunting dimensions.

Luckily, though, there are smaller-scale success stories nearby, including the redevelopment of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington and the revival of downtown Bethesda -- both also impelled by Metro. Sensibly, planners in Fairfax are gleaning lessons from those places as they hammer out the details of what should be, in time, a more vital and user-friendly second downtown for the national capital region.

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